The Gift of Silence in Counselling

I am noticing some significant improvements in a number of my skills during skills practice.  However, one skill that still requires a lot of work is silence.

During skills practice, I find myself trying not to fill a silence, but just can’t seem to help it.  Something pulls me forward to fill that silence.  I am not quite sure what it is.  It could be a misconception that because counselling is about ‘talking’ then silences mean that I am not helping the client.

Rationally, I know this not to be the case and know that silence itself can be very healing.  However, there is something rooted within me that believes the opposite.

From my reading I am aware that this discomfort with silence is a common experience for trainees.  I want to explore the issue of silence further in order to try and break down this barrier that I am experiencing in terms of sitting with silence.

Silence within counselling has been defined as:

 “the temporary absence of any overt verbal or paraverbal communication between counsellor and client within sessions” (Feltham and Dryden, 1993)

In person-centred counselling, where the counsellor trusts that the client will work in a way and at a pace that is suitable for him or her, the client has control over the content, pace and objectives of a session – including any silences.

Therefore, the person-centred counsellor needs to be prepared to listen to silences as well as words, recognising that the silence may help the client focus (Mearns, 1997).

Silence can actually be productive and it also places the responsibility of the session in the hands of the client, ensuring that when the silence is broken the session is still focused on the client’s agenda.  By breaking the silence due to personal discomfort, the agenda has become the counsellors.

Rogers (1942) says of silence:

 In an initial interview, long pauses or silences are likely to be embarrassing rather than helpful.  In subsequent contacts, however, if fundamental rapport is good, silence on the part of the counsellor may be a most useful device.”

Mearns and Thorne (2000) believe that there is “a silence of communion where counsellor, client and the ‘something larger’ are interconnected in a world where time stands still.”

In many ways, silence provides the client with space to focus and time to reflect.  It is far from being the painful object I perceive it as, but is more so a gift, something the client is likely to rarely experience in the company of others.  Allowing silence and being comfortable with silence is in some ways related to unconditional positive regard and having no expectations of the client.  They can just ‘be.’  It is ok to just ‘be.’  As George and Cristiani (1990) state, “silence communicates to the client a sincere and deep acceptance.” 

Such acceptance is fundamental to person-centred counselling and in order to fully accept my clients I need to learn how to sit with silence. One thing that will help me is to see it as a gift, which is what I am starting to recognise it as.

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9 replies

  1. I’m just curious, would you envisage having a conversation with the client about silence, perhaps in the terms that you have described it here, or would you just allow it to happen naturally as and when it did? I only ask because when I was having counselling, I was uncomfortable with silence, and I would look to the counsellor to fill any silences, and if she didn’t, then I would rush to fill them because I would worry that she would think she was wasting her time with me if I didn’t have plenty to say to fill all the space (not that she ever gave me the slightest indication that she was thinking that!). In social situations silences can certainly be awkward, and so maybe it’s helpful if the counsellor can explain that silences are ok, and can be a positive thing, within a counselling session.

  2. Hi Nicola,
    Great post as always. I’m glad you’ve recognised the power of silence. I like you; spoke when I should have been quiet at first during hypnotherapy. After talking to mentors, I realised that the client has to have these quiet moments to allow the subconscious to relay past events. With experience you’ll learn that you will benefit the client more by just being quiet and listening. In the effort to help them quickly, we feel we have to talk.

    Another thing to remember, a mistake I used to make at first was to put a suggestion to the client to help them, as if I was chatting to them in person. Like for instance, a lady felt guilty that she hadn’t visited her Mother enough times, I kind of suggested, ‘it’s not your fault.’ (massive blooper). My advisors told me that I had to keep quiet, and let her feel the pain of guilt, then cry, to get better. So if in doubt, keep quiet. Good luck.

  3. Vanessa, you make a really good point here. I think most person-centred counsellors would discuss silence with their client. They might even say something along the lines of, “I sense that you find silences difficult or that you need to fill them. Why is that?” So, while I am sure very few clients enter counselling feeling ok with silence (just because of the way we have been moulded by society), they will hopefully leave feeling more comfortable with silences. I think the discomfort comes from fear, which your own comments also seem to suggest – fear over what she is thinking about you, whether she will feel she is wasting her or your time, etc. Also, if you are a paying client, there is also the added pressure of thinking you shouldn’t be paying to sit in silence!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your own thoughts and experiences on this topic, Susan. I find it a fascinating topic as it goes against how we are in everyday life. I do think that if, as a counsellor, I break the silence, I would be doing it for my own sake – which cannot be the case when the client is the priority during that session. It will take some time to overcome this, but I should think it will assist other relationships too.

    Oh, I could so relate to your comments re making suggestions to clients. It reminds me of when I want to say that something isn’t their fault or similar, when the best thing I can do is get them to recognise that for themselves, without me saying it. So interesting that you have come across similar situations. I look forward to hearing more about your own work as I continue my own training.

  5. Can I please have the references for the article on silence

  6. I find it neccesary for silence during councelling because silent not only gives you the impression that you’re being heard but also to listen for clue to what you are thinking and feeling that may be a problem for you.

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  8. Hi. Sorry to ask, as I know it will be a pain to do but would you be able to list the full reference for the Mearns (1997) and George and Christiani (1990) quotes please. I came across your blog as part of some research I’m doing and would like to access the original articles. Many Thanks x

  9. I’ve just sat through the 3rd session with a psychologist who just sits there silent. I’m not a psychologist, but i’ve been reading all over the internet how you all are telling each other how great it is to just sit there in silence. Well, as a client, I feel like the guy is just running the clock down and that’s fine if he wants to do that for his check, but trying to go to these sessions saps a lot of energy from my life and i need to find a way to get past panic attacks that are preventing medical diagnosis and putting my job at risk. At this point, I could get a gold fish and save myself the gas and emotional energy that it takes me to go sit in his office.

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